Last Wednesday, my mother, Lillian, woke up in the middle of the night unable to see from her left eye. I learned about it in the early afternoon when she called from the ophthalmologist's office, unsure whether to consent to surgery. Macular degeneration had stolen her right eye's vision years earlier, but since then, serial injections had prevented the bleeding that had finally come.
My mother is a retired teacher and, at 93, is clinging to her independence. When my father died in 2012, she moved into Cedar Crest, a retirement community in Pompton Plains. She was initially reluctant to leave Queens, where she'd lived for 55 years in a home awash with kids, music, endless breakfasts, and CBS radio. But at Cedar Crest, she met a lot of people like herself. She plays bridge, canasta, and mahjong. She labors to rise from a couch but does water aerobics for exercise. She ends most days watching Rachel Maddow, and her sole source of stress is a reticence to discuss politics because the place teems with Trump supporters.
My mother has generally accepted aging with equanimity. She pushes a red walker to the dining room and views arthritis as a reasonable price for living so long. Her brothers and their wives are gone, as are most of her friends. Each night, she listens to the radio for hours to conquer the quiet left behind when my father died. Games and gossip, simple meals, and calls from children pass the time.
Vision loss had suddenly made her vulnerable. Waves of nausea kept her from eating. She needed my help to agree to surgery, even though there was little downside and a 50% chance of regaining her sight. On Friday morning, a retina specialist injected helium into the globe to nudge the clot away from the macula.
On Saturday morning, I took her for a post op check. She'd hardly eaten since the hemorrhage, and we discussed her fear of helplessness. A technician removed the bandages and tested her vision. With her scarred right eye, she could read a large "E" held a foot away. With the surgical eye, she saw nothing.
We waited for the doctor. My mother could see frames on the wall but not the biochemistry degree or residency certificate. Just white. We agreed the nausea was probably from anxiety, and we wrestled with a vision of permanent sightlessness. The doctor eventually entered. He wasn't the one who'd done the surgery; he was just there to inspect the eye. He completed the task briskly, with a cool precision reflecting his personality. He instructed my mother to take drops and look downward every hour or so for the rest of the day. She was to follow up in one week with a partner who would answer her questions.
We spent the rest of the day in my mother's apartment. I taught her to use Siri so she could use her iPhone to call us, but she had trouble following the instructions. She couldn't see the TV and wasn't interested in Podcasts. My brother and his girlfriend visited, and the three of us went to grab some Turkish food, briefly leaving her with a lovely Russian aide who'd brought some borscht to share.
At 10PM, my mother joined me in the kitchen to put in the drops. She swallowed some tablets of acidophilus, glucosamine and something called "Preservision," and after that she drank a tiny glass of milk with half an almond cookie. I wiggled my fingers in front of her, and she thought she could just make them out. I taped a shield over her eye so she wouldn't scratch it while she slept. A few minutes later she was in her bedroom, telling Siri to turn on CBS radio, which would keep her company for the night.